150 years ago: Grant rejects any further offensive against Charleston

On April 21, 1864, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren passed a summary report to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells.  As Dahlgren had at other occasions since September of the previous year, the commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron offered operational options to employ the forces then outside Charleston, South Carolina (and note that Dahlgren was in Washington at the time, and not with the fleet off South Carolina):

Sir: As the demands of the public service elsewhere will prevent the detail of more iron-clads for service at Charleston, which will necessarily postpone any serious attack on the interior defenses of the harbor, I directed combined operations to would suggest that be the occupation of Long Island, with the view of an attack on the works of Sullivan’s Island, to be prosecuted as far as the force ashore and afloat may permit. If Sullivan’s Island can be occupied, it would enable the iron-clads to maintain position in the harbor permanently, and in the end to drive the rebels from Charleston.

And for emphasis, Dahlgren’s suggestion to operate against Sullivan’s Island was not a new proposal.  Dahlgren had pressed for such since the fall of Morris Island.  But nothing so concrete as to commit a plan to paper.

As with other similar suggestions, Wells referred the matter over to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, for comment.  In those earlier events, Stanton had turned to Major General Henry Halleck for a response.  And Halleck had, like Dahlgren, remained non-committal.  And neither Halleck or Dahlgren would leave any remark which the opposite branch of service might interpret as a reluctance to support further operations.

But this was April 1864.  Stanton did not turn to Halleck, but rather to Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant.  For his response, on April 24, Grant requested direct input from Major-General Quincy Gillmore, who was at that time preparing to leave Charleston.

General: Herewith I send you copy of letter from Admiral Dahlgren to the Secretary of the Navy, and from the latter to the military authorities, recommending certain movements near Charleston, S.C. The letters explain themselves. Please read them and send me your views on the proposed movements. Not knowing the situation of affairs about Charleston, and particularly since the withdrawal of so many of your forces, I can give no specific directions. I would state, however, that it will be of great advantage to us if the force at Charleston can be safely employed in keeping up a demonstration that will force the enemy to keep large numbers there to watch their movements.

While giving some consideration to resuming some operations against Charleston, Grant’s mind seemed fixed.  Charleston was not on his list of objectives.  There was no room offered for Gillmore to even suggest more troops. In Grant’s view, any operations would remain limited to demonstrations.  And, reading between the lines, the reason for Gillmore’s input was to qualify, and quantify, the response back to the Navy.

Grant was not in favor of non-specific plans against elusive goals.  Nor was Grant willing to curtail or compromise his larger scheme of operations for the chance to settle a score at Charleston.  The cradle of secession was no longer a top objective.

For what it was worth, Halleck offered his opinion on the matter:

If the iron-clads and the large number of troops off Charleston for the last year could not take and hold Sullivan’s Island, how can they expect to do it with forces diminished more than one-half? Moreover, if taken, it would simply result in the loss from active service of 5,000 troops to garrison it, without any influence upon the coming campaign. It will require 60,000 men three months to take Charleston. The capture of Sullivan’s Island would not have much influence upon the siege of that place, as it can be conducted with greater advantage from other points. I am satisfied that Admiral Dahlgren’s letter was intended simply as an excuse in advance for the inability of the iron-clads to accomplish anything against Charleston.

Give Halleck credit, as he appeared to best characterize the nature of Dahlgren’s original letter starting this chain. With no ironclad reinforcements, Dahlgren was not ready to “damn the torpedoes.”

But at this point, I have to ask why Halleck had not expressed this view five months earlier?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 64, 67-8.)

Henry Hunt on “short howitzers for vertical fire”

When discussing artillery’s ballistic properties, the terms “horizontal fire” and “vertical fire” come into play.  As the names imply, these refer to the path of the projectile relative to the earth’s surface.  Due to gravity and other natural forces, horizontal fire is not ruler-straight, but a flat curve.  Vertical fire, likewise, is not straight up (or one hopes not), but rather a tall curve.  The early gunners of the first artillery pieces learned that different trajectories offered advantages that could be applied to a tactical situation.  In a nutshell, horizontal fire worked well to batter an obstacle while vertical fire could put projectiles over and beyond the obstacle.  Tactical application of basic physics.

By the time of the Civil War, vertical fire had become somewhat a “specialty” technique.  Field artillerists were certainly aware of vertical fire and employed it on occasion.  But on the open battlefields, field artillery fired directly on targets – or horizontally.   The hausse sight saw more use than the gunners’ quadrant.

That in mind, consider correspondence from Brigadier-General Henry Hunt, Artillery Chief, Army of the Potomac, to Brigadier-General George Ramsay, Chief of Ordnance for the US Army:

Artillery Headquarters, Army of the Potomac,
April 21, 1864.
Brig. Gen. George D. Ramsay,
Chief of Ordnance, Washington, D.C.:

General: I have at your request examined the proposition of Capt. [Adolph] Schwartz, aide-de-camp, for the introduction into our service of short howitzers for vertical fire.

As to the necessity, there are but few occasions in which the light 12-pounder gun will not, by reducing the charge and giving high elevations, perform the service required of the short howitzers. The caliber being smaller, a greater number of guns must be brought into requisition and a greater number of shells used, but these field batteries can supply.

In the few cases in which the 12-pounder field gun cannot accomplish the work of the proposed howitzers, from the enemy occupying hollows or low grounds which cannot be seen, or where he is behind works or cover at short ranges which the shells of the gun cannot reach, a few Coehorn mortars would answer the purpose required. These mortars form a part of our system of artillery. Four of them, with their bed, can readily be carried in a common wagon; they have ranges from 500 to 1,000 yards, and eight or a dozen of them, with 50 or 60 rounds each of ammunition, would, with the 12-pounders of an army corps or of an army, answer all the purposes likely to be required.

I do not undervalue the howitzer for its special service, but I think the evil of adding to the number and variety of our kinds of guns and ammunition would outweigh the advantage.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,
Henry J. Hunt,
Brigadier-General, Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac.

“Captain” Adolph Schwartz was at that time of the war “Major” Adolph Schwartz, a staff officer serving in the Thirteenth Corps, posted on the Mississippi.  And Schwartz is an interesting character.  Early in the war Schwartz commanded Battery E, 2nd Illinois Artillery (though formed in St. Louis, Missouri).  He served with distinction on many early war battles in the west, in particular at Shiloh.  His wartime service was closely linked to Major-General John A. McClernand.  From Belmont to Vicksburg, Schwartz served as McClernand’s adviser, artillery chief, ordnance chief, and at times adjutant.  The congratulatory order issued after Arkansas Post, which angered William T. Sherman and to some degree U.S. Grant, came from Schwartz, by order of McClernand of course.   (However, I am at a loss to put together Schwartz’ pre-war background.  If any readers have leads, I would appreciate it.)

I’ve looked far and low for a copy of Schwartz’ suggestion.  As an “artillery historian” I have long wanted to see the details suggested and determine what tactical observations Schwartz offered.  And at the same time, this particular letter from Schwartz might help explain the context of Hunt’s response.  I suspect Schwartz suggested use of short-length howitzers of 24-pounder caliber (basing that on the details offered in Hunt’s response).

Because Hunt was asked to respond, one might assume the suggestion was directly addressed to the Army of the Potomac.  But the first strike against that is the reference to “Captain” Schwartz. I doubt that Hunt knew Schwartz directly.  And thus was probably using the rank he saw on the referenced document.  I’m not certain when Schwartz received promotion to major, but do know in January 1863 he was signing orders as a major.   Thus the suggestion likely dated from 1862 or earlier.

So was this a general observation offered by a lowly captain, sent directly to the Ordnance Department following field experience in the Western Theater?  Or was this a suggestion passed up the chain of command, slowly, and eventually landing at the Ordnance Department for comment?  Or does it really matter?  OK… I’ll leave that determination until Schwartz’s suggestion is available.

But let us focus on Hunt’s dismissal of the proposal.  He offered that 12-pdr Napoleons and Coehorn mortars would fill the needs.  And the bottom line, echoing Hunt’s experience from several major campaigns – there was no need to introduce yet another “system” to the field artillery.  He preferred to keep the guns, their trains, and their support arrangements very simple and uniform.

But wait… Coehorns?  Those were not part of the Army of the Potomac’s formal artillery park.  Hunt said, “These mortars form a part of our system of artillery.”  I read that to mean the “big Army’s system of artillery” as in that approved by the War Department and posted to the manuals.  I don’t think he is saying, as of that date, the Army of the Potomac had formally incorporated Coehorns into the artillery park.  There are several references, by Hunt, including Coehorns in the siege train setup to support the Army of the Potomac.  One of which was in April 1864, when Hunt requested twenty Coehorns set aside in Washington as part of the siege train to support the army.  But that siege train was not included with the force about to crash into the Wilderness, but rather a force held in reserve, should the situation call for formal siege operations.

So why am I picking on this response from Hunt about some letter written by an obscure artillerist from the west?  Here’s the point – Hunt didn’t have Coehorns on hand to “answer the purpose required” as a formal part of his artillery reserve when he wrote in April.  However, he did have Coehorns on hand in May.  To be exact, “eight 24-pounder Coehorn mortars with 100 rounds each of ammunition were served by a detachment of Fifteenth New York Foot Artillery.

So… did Schwartz’s suggestion have some influence on Hunt’s inclusion of two wagon loads of Coehorns?

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 935.)

Wainwright’s Diary, April 21, 1864: “We have two more warning notes of a start”

Another diary entry for Colonel Charles S. Wainwright.  Another report on the weather:

April 21, Thursday. Since Monday morning we have had fine, bright sunshine.  The peach trees are in blossom, and the leaves of the earlier forest trees bursting out from the buds.  Still the snow lies white along the ridge of the Blue Mountains, and the nights continue to be cold….

I would point out the weather for April 18 through 21, 2014 has featured “fine, bright sunshine.”

My monthly returned of yesterday shew an aggregate present of 1,611… for the troops around here.  We have two more warning notes of a start, viz: the shipment of the most sick today, and the regulation of supplies to be taken at the start and the means of carrying them.  Three days full rations in havrsacks, three small in knapsacks, and ten in waggons, or sixteen days supply in all.  Ten days forage is to be taken.  How absurd such orders are!  What are the animals to do the last six days? Or are they to live on nothing? From the start they are cut off from their hay fourteen pounds, and the allowance of grain reduced two pounds, so that they may be said to be placed on half allowance.  When will our commanders give up this penny-wise-and-pound-foolish plan? If their proposed operations require sixteen days’ food for the men, they should require the same amount for the animals….

The orders Wainwright referred to were derived from reccomendations by Brigadier-General Rufus Ingalls.  In a lengthy letter to Major-General George Meade on April 13, Ingalls governed the number of wagons needed by the Army of the Potomac based on the issue of rations, ammunition, and of course forage for the horses.  Ingalls adjusted his figures, slightly, from that used as a basis for General Orders No. 100, issued on November 5, 1863.  The point of contention, from Wainwright’s perspective, was Ingalls’ estimate of ten days forge for the animals.  From the perspective of those handling the guns, the arithmetic appears some of the “two-and-two-are-five” manner.  But Ingalls’ plan relied heavily on the depot train to provide forage on the march, particularly for the cavalry.  In some ways, Ingalls was an early adopter of the “just in time” logistics practice.

Some will point out that “just in time” really means “almost late.”

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, page 342.)